History of Avatars

Over the years the visual quality of avatars has increased significantly.  In the early days of text based MUD’s (multi-user dungeons) you were represented by your tag, or nickname.  This grouping of characters expressed your virtual identity in the online world. 

[Avatar]: Hello everyone, has anyone seen the new graphical MUD, World Chat’s Space Station?

When I needed a graphical avatar I scanned in a caricature that an artist did of me back in the early days of Comdex, a huge computer convention that was held every year in Las Vegas.

Paper Quidit

This served me well for all the bulletin boards, BBS’s, discussion lists and chat services I frequented.  I also used it with my early writing on the Internet.  As you can tell, I had to raid the virtual photo album to get this picture.  It’s a little faded out and brittle after all of these years, but it’s worth risking taking it out to share it with  you all.

Worlds Chat Space Station was the first graphical MUD.  In my earlier post I talk about looking out the window of the space station in Worlds Chat.  Here is the view out that window:

World’s Chat Space Station

I just knew at the time that this space station was the first outpost in an exciting new world of online virtual worlds.  Jump ahead a few years to the launch of Everquest

Everquest was the first commercially successful MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) to hit the Internet.  People went out and killed things and completed quests to level up their avatars.  As you increased your experience levels you were rewarded with better skills and weapons.  You would eventually reach a level where you needed to group up with others to complete the required quests.  Player guilds were formed to group players into organized parties, familiar iwth each other’s play styles and able to take on the more “elite” quests.  The aesthetic qualities of Everquest were much better than in earlier games, and it really helped to pull the player into the virtual landscape (sometimes at the expense of their real lives):


Star Wars Galaxies was credited with bringing the MMO closer to mainstream america.  With a huge community of Star Wars fans, Star Wars Galaxies was an instant success.  Players could create an avatar in the Star Wars universe and enter the game and interact with other players on all of the planets of the Star Wars universe.  In later versions of the game players could own their own ships and fly between planets (instead of using the shuttles):

 Star Wars Galaxies

The first MMO that was commercially released that allowed the players to construct their own houses and lots to live out their sims lives on was The Sims Online.  In this game you gazed down on your creations like a God from above.  Your “Sim” was quick to respond to your every command.  Unfortunately, this game required players to eat, sleep, skill up and even go to the bathroom.  This MMO was much more about socializing than it was about killing and quests.  A world economy evolved and along with it came mafia’s and other virtual organized crime that eventually ran off many of the players out of the game.

The Sims Online

Even the stand alone The Sims 2 franchise allows for detailed avatar creation.  The Sims 2 is not a multiplayer game, but is the rightful successor of The Sims Online engine.  If there is ever a The Sims Online 2, it will have an immediate fan base.  As I write this entry, The Sims 2 Pets add-on was just released. Not only can you create your virtual avatar in The Sims 2, now you can also place your pet’s avatar in the game.  Here’s my avatar from The Sims 2:

 Qudit in The Sims 2

Soon other companies realized there was an actual market for user created and populated worlds.  There.com was launched and had the unique distinction of having voice chat built in.  When you spoke into your microphone, your avatar would animate itself appropriately.  There.com placed a heavy emphasis on the social aspects of the game.  While the graphics were a little lower resolution than others, and the avatars had a distinctive cartoonish look, the expressions and idle animations were very convincing.  With voice support, all sorts of unique group performances were possible.  I attended in-game concerts, unplugged performances and rowdy gameshows.  Here’s a picture out of the avatar photo album of my There.com avatar:

There Avatar

And finally, we have the platform of choice for education, Second Life.  After several years of being online, Second Life has emerged as the premier platform for educators looking to bring students online to experience unique learning environments.  Everything in Second Life is user created. 

The avatar creation process is almost a game in and of itself.  Every minute detail of your avatar is completely customizable.  A rich set of 3D construction tools are included in the game.  If you want to fully exploit this environment you need a good dose of creativity along side a strong grasp of programming concepts.  Unlike other MMO’s, Second Life allows their residents to use a scripting language to add intelligence and animations to their creations.  Another picture from the avatar photo album shows my early BETA avatar from Second Life:

Quidit Second Life BETA

I had a very small lot to build on in the early days of Second Life, so I built up instead of out.  This was kinder to the pocketbook and left more money for the finer things in life.  A person can spend all their time simply shopping in Second Life.  The world economy is based on Linden Dollars (L$).  You can purchase your L$’s from Linden Labs directly, or from online brokers who buy and sell the currency from other players.  Yes, that’s right, you can sell L$ for US$.  Some people are able to make a reasonable income by selling their creations and cashing out their L$ every month.  Here’s a picture taken of the exterior of my stilt house.   

Quidit House in Second Life

Down on the ground level under my house was my garden, complete with a gazebo and wrap around pond.  Plenty of plants grew in the garden, all sprouting from my imagination.  That open ocean in the background has long since been filled in with land and sold out to other virtual residents in Second Life.  I sold off this property a few years back when I left Second Life to play Star Wars Galaxies. 

Quidit Garden SL

The possibilities are endless for creating virtual worlds.  Second life has the richest set of tools for constructing 3D objects, and bringing them to life with the built in scripting language.  Because Second Life is not a traditional scripted game with quests and levels, it lends itself well to being used in an educational setting. 

And many of you who know about MMO’s are thinking, “Hmmmmmmm………..seems like something is missing from this history of avatars.”  What could that be?  Could it be World of Warcraft?  This game has definitely hit dead center with the mainstream computer gamers.  As of this moment in time, World of Warcraft has over 7 million users worldwide.  All of the players are paying upwards of $15 a month to keep their avatars inhabiting this virtual world.  Here’s a snapshot of my avatar in Ironforge (the Dwarven capital): 

Quidit in WOW

The addiction factor of games like Everquest and World of Warcraft is the quest for higher and higher levels in-game.  The current level cap in the game is level 60.  The next installment of World of Warcraft, the Burning Crusade, is set to launch in January and will up this cap to level 70.  Expect the population of World of Warcraft to surge ahead again upon this release.  Here is a screenshot of my Supervisor of Instructional Technology achieving level 60 with his first avatar:

Cill getting level 60

That little flash of golden light that is radiating around his dwarven avatar is the reward that keeps people playing, pushing their experience levels higher and higher.  It is the high that is achieved when you cross over to the next higher level.  That flash of golden light is better than any adrenaline rush you can get for any MMO player.  I’ve seen people ignore food, family and sleep to get their next level in a game.  If we as educators can tap that drive to make fun educational environments, we may just kick learning to the next level online. 

The latest craze in my household, aside from the PacRimX islands, is Tabula Rasa.  This is a virtual world MMO set in a Science Fiction setting where the Earth has been attacked by aliens, and you join up to fight back, travelling to these alien homeworlds to establish bases and take the battle to them on their own ground.  Here’s one of my avatar’s from Tabula Rasa:

TR Avatar

What the future holds is unknown, but given the leaps and bounds in the evolution of avatars and online MMO’s over the past ten years, in the not so distant future you may be able to enter one of these virtual realities and interact with people all across the world in true 3D physical presence.   If you would have shown me a screenshot from Second Life back when I got my first Apple II+ 25 years ago I would have told you it was impossible for computers to generate that kind of an online world.  At the current rapid rate of advancement, what will these virtual online worlds look like in 5 years, 10 years and beyond? 

Our students of today will be developing these worlds of tomorrow.   Let’s hope that we can all keep up with our students as they lay claim to these new worlds. 

14 responses to “History of Avatars

  1. Thanks for the history lesson, it was very instructive.
    I guess I am an example of what can be expected in the future, some geriatrically advanced teachers trying to adapt their skills to online ed.
    As a measure of this I had to ask my Year 8 Maths Class what an MMO was……yep sombody knew. Isn’t interdependence great.

  2. I agree with Dave’s comments. I have learnt so much essential background info put together so succinctly. I just wish I had found your site 3 months ago, it really puts SL in context with the evolution of virtual realities.
    Also, like David, as a ‘mature’ educator adapting my skills to online/ubiquitous education, your resources are invaluable. Thanks again.

  3. Vanessa October

    Thank you for this very informative lesson. This helped me a lot since I am doing a research project on Avatars. I wanted the clear facts of its history and now that I’ve got it, its full steam ahead. Thanks Dave. You got mad skill

  4. Nice read, just found the site by looking for sims 2.
    There is a game called Entropia Universe allowing you create a version of your self as well. Well its hard to get a resemblance but its avatar creation is using a technology of parametrics for the model so you can make your avatar very unique almost. As well as grooming services allowing great freedom to have a new hair style only available when someone learns it.

  5. wow, that’s so rad.

  6. Pingback: Friday Fun #2 Get Your Own Avatar « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design

  7. yeah right, the first MMO that was released that allowed to build real houses was Ultima Online and surely not the Sims………..

  8. You have been the GREATEST help on my research.
    Thnx so much!!

  9. that’s cool, that’s cool

  10. Habitat for Commodore 64, a project that ENDED in 1988, had “avatars”. Morningtar and Falstein at Lucasfilm games did this and it was also a massively multiplayer online game.

    World Chat was released in 1995 eight years after Habitat was born in 1987.

    Everquest was released a decade after Habitat died.

    The authors of both of these games you mention may or may not have known about Habitat (but that seems unlikely with the MMO) but they almost certainly knew of the “reinvention” of the use of avatars in 3D virtual realities, all terms popularized by Neil Stephenson in Snow Crash, a brilliantly prescient novel and a must read for anyone who is a literature gamer or a lover of cyberpunk.

  11. What were the first uses of using avatars in chat or other messaging (inside or outside of games or other applications), like:

    [graphical avatar (with or without username)][message]

  12. It should be noted that not only was Ultima Online the FIRST successful commercial MMO, the longest running mmo in history and the first mmo to offer customizable housing. But! it was also the inspiration for for Everquest, in turn everquest was cloned over and over to make the rest of the lot.

  13. I currently participate in an experimental project that puts accent on use of pencil-drawn art for both scenery and avatars, similar to the first avy shown in this post. It as well has some addictive features but mindtraps in general are left to individuals to avoid or succumb.

    When we look at that type of image, our mind reacts filling the colors in and shaping it inside with our thoughts. The brain activity itself is of value here, as we are moved to explore rather then just devour what is served.

    Any thoughts on direction these huge masses are heading?

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